Compromise 1: Philadelphia Story

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In September 1789, at the end of the Constitutional Convention, James Madison wrote in dismay to his old friend Thomas Jefferson, who was an ocean away in Paris. “I hazard an opinion,” he lamented, “that the plan should it be adopted will neither effectively answer the national object nor prevent the local mischiefs which everywhere excite disgust against the state governments.”Madison had come to Philadelphia four months earlier determined to create a fully empowered national government designed to replace the state-based system under the Articles of Confederation. Despite his own best efforts, however, the delegates to the convention, so he thought, had proved unequal to the task, producing a document that finessed the core issues behind a veneer of willfully ambiguous compromises. Madison regarded these political accommodations as loose knots that would soon unravel, predicting that the Constitution would be lucky to last a decade.

At the same time, Benjamin Franklin was expressing his own frustration with the document’s final draft but doing so in an upbeat tone that contrasted sharply with Madison’s stark sense of failure. No one—and certainly not Madison—could turn a phrase as deftly as Franklin, and his open-ended verdict was a classic statement of political wisdom in the wait-and-see mode:

I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present: but, Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it; for having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change my opinion even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise . . . Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best.

Both Madison and Franklin were well aware that the 55 delegates assembled in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 were no gathering of demigods operating under the saintly spell of divine inspiration but rather a muster of veteran politicos set on closing a deal. But the deal they struck has endured, the United States remains one of the oldest republics in world history, and four of the sitting members of the Supreme Court claim that their judicial opinions are guided explicitly by the intentions of the original framers—all facts that make a reverential posture toward this moment almost irresistible.

Reverence should nevertheless be resisted, because there is no evidence that tongues of fire appeared over the heads of the delegates, thereby granting them momentary access to transcendent truths. The Constitutional Convention was a wholly secular occasion in which the delegates behaved like diplomats from various countries negotiating a landmark treaty. And the compromises they hammered out were calculated concessions made between the different regions or sections of what was still a work in progress called the United States. They were designing the political framework for a new nation that did not yet exist.

The most famous compromise, recognized as such by the delegates at the time and enshrined in most history books as the Great Compromise, was brokered in the early weeks of July. The issue at stake was the character of representation in Congress. (Everyone had already agreed that the new legislature should be bicameral.) The question remained whether representation should be determined by state, as in the government under the Articles of Confederation, or by population.

The arguments on both sides of that question had grown so fierce that Franklin, rather uncharacteristically, proposed that a chaplain be called in to deliver a prayer on the day of the decisive vote. Though the story is probably apocryphal, Alexander Hamilton purportedly opposed Franklin’s proposal, claiming that he saw no reason to call in foreign aid.

The Great Compromise was a split-the-difference solution, making representation by state the rule in the Senate, with two representatives for each state, and by population in the House. Most historians have described this resolution as a compromise between the large states (such as Virginia and Pennsylvania) and the small states (such as Delaware and New Jersey). The former were victorious in the House and the latter in the Senate. Although they did not realize it at the time, the adoption of state-based representation in the Senate would prove a major victory for the slaveholding states. For as the population growth in the North outstripped the South the Senate became a bastion from which proslavery states effectively blocked legislation that threatened their peculiar institution.

At the time, however, there was another reason why the most ardent nationalists at the convention interpreted the Great Compromise as a devastating defeat. George Washington, who was in the chair and prohibited from participating in the debate, let it be known that he regarded the vote as a death knell for the national cause he had left retirement to champion, expressing his “deep regret at having any agency in this business.” Madison was equally depressed at the outcome, also lamenting the Great Compromise as a fatal blow to a fully empowered federal government and predicting that any national government to emerge from the convention would be “of short duration.”

What so upset Washington and Madison had nothing to do with the different agendas of big versus small states. It was their conviction that any new Constitution worthy of the name needed to locate sovereignty in the citizenry of all the states rather than in the states themselves. They believed that there needed to be a clean break with the state-based system of the Articles and a clear line separating the jurisdiction of the newly empowered federal government and the lingering residual jurisdiction of the state governments.